Some Classic Works Are Now Free in the Public Domain

    06 January 2023

    As the calendar turns to 2023, some classic works of literature, music and movies are now available for use at no cost to the American public.

    The classics include The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the last collection of stories about the famous detective written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Some works from famous writers also became free in the new year. They include Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women, William Faulkner's Mosquitoes and Agatha Christie's The Big Four.

    FILE - A Museum of London employee poses for photographers next to an 1897 oil on canvas portrait of Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London in London, Oct. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
    FILE - A Museum of London employee poses for photographers next to an 1897 oil on canvas portrait of Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London in London, Oct. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

    One of the movies to be free is Wings, a 1927 film directed by William A. Wellman, which was named the outstanding production winner at the very first Oscars award ceremony.

    Other films from 1927 are also now free to the public. Among them are The Jazz Singer, the first full-length movie with synchronized dialogue, and Fritz Lang's science-fiction Metropolis.

    Several well-known musical compositions – the music and words, not the sound recordings - are also on the list of creative works available for free. They include the Broadway musical Funny Face, jazz music works from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin's classic Puttin' on the Ritz, and I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream by Howard Johnson, Billy Moll and Robert A. King.

    These works are among the thousands of books, movies, and musical compositions entering what is called the public domain in 2023.

    Under United States copyright law, once a work enters the public domain, it can legally be shared, performed, reused, repurposed, or sampled without permission or cost.

    The works from the year 1927 were first supposed to be protected by copyrights for 75 years. But in 1998, U.S. law extended copyright protection for another 20 years.

    Jennifer Jenkins is the director of Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain. She wrote that "For the vast majority — probably 99 percent — of works from 1927, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyright. Yet they remained off limits, for no good reason."

    Jenkins added that the long U.S. copyright period meant many works that would now become available have long since been lost. She said they were not profitable to maintain by the legal owners, but they could not be used by others. The list of "lost" films kept by the Duke University center includes Victor Fleming's The Way of All Flesh and Tod Browning's London After Midnight.

    The Public Domain Review calls each January 1st a Public Domain Day. The publication notes that "there is no one single public domain," adding that countries have different laws to bring creative works into the public domain.

    For example, Britain, most of Europe and South America, permit works by people who died in 1952 to enter the public domain after 70 years. In most of Africa and Asia, the terms are 50 years after death.

    I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

    Hai Do adapted this Associated Press story for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    calendar –n. a document showing the days, weeks and months of the year

    classic –adj. a good example of some form, work, product or object

    literature –n. written works that are meaningful for a long time

    detective –n. a police officer or person whose job it is to find information about crimes

    synchronized dialogue –n. having the sound of spoken words match images in a movie

    composition –n. a piece of artistic work or writing, especially musical compositions

    public domain –n. the group of works and some forms of property that are not considered to be owned by anyone and, therefore, can be used without cost by people

    sample –v. to use a small part a recording in another recording

    vast –adj. very great in size and extent

    benefit –v. to receive some good result from something